THE chatter is getting louder. More voices are joining in all the time, as people of all ages and backgrounds begin to talk more openly about death, dying, and funerals. Christians have much to contribute: every Sunday, we celebrate our great hope that death is not the end, and that God will bring comfort for the bereaved.
The taboo around death and dying is being challenged. Almost every week, there are articles and comments about death and funerals, sometimes triggered by the death of well-known individuals, and sometimes by personal events. Movements such as Death Café (Feature, 24 October 2014), a space to talk about death and dying, are growing quickly, as people begin to face issues such as making good financial plans, or talking more widely about bereavement.
RESEARCH undertaken on behalf of the Archbishops’ Council in 2012 suggested that the Church of England was well-placed to help people have this kind of conversation. One of the respondents suggested that a small group gathered together would be a good idea, and, last year, Church House Publishing launched Gravetalk, a pack of 50 questions and a guide to running a café-style event, which is part of the Archbishops’ Council work around funerals (Comment, 15 May 2015).
Gravetalk has been a popular tool to get people of all types starting a conversation about matters of life and death. It is being used by care professionals, funeral directors, and many others who work outside the Church. Anne Lee, who works with Hudson Training, in Taunton, to assess health and social-care apprentices and care-workers, finds it invaluable in helping young people address the issues they might encounter. “The GraveTalk questions help young people to be comfortable with talking about death and dying, and helps them think about some of the big things that happen in their own lives,” she says.
Questions can be personal, such as “What music would you like to have played or sung at your funeral?” and can generate much discussion. People share their memories; sometimes there are tears, at other times, laughter. In one group, gathered around a table, someone did not want any fuss at all: “Just get it over with. After all, I’ll be gone.” Cries of indignation led to a long conversation about why we need a funeral, and what it might mean.
One group in Devon began discussing the question: “Would you take a child to a funeral?” and, as one person began to talk about being unable to go to her mother’s funeral, the conversation turned to some deep issues around life and death, and life after death.
SINCE being piloted in 2014, in Lichfield diocese, hundreds of Gravetalk events have been led by churches — sometimes with congregations, sometimes in public spaces. Recently, a vicar from Rochester diocese commented: “I wish I had done this sooner. Once people started talking, it was difficult to stop them.”
Gravetalk is being used in hospices, prisons, churches, and also in pubs and coffee shops. I found myself in a long conversation one evening with my 22-year-old niece, as she talked about the loss of grandparents, pets, the impact of a friend’s death, and her own hopes for what difference her life might make in the world. We also talked about faith and hope, and the great love of God in Jesus Christ.
The theme of this year’s Dying Awareness week is “The Big Conversation”, and, above all, churches need to be holding conversations, joining in those that are happening in their communities, and contributing to local and social media. It is also about creating a space where people can share their experiences, thoughts, and emotions. It is not about holding a course with answers or a programme to complete, but is about allowing people to share their ideas, however hesitant they are.
The Church of England — indeed, most churches — can provide space, and is usually able to organise refreshment and hospitality, which are vital components of a successful conversation. But, more important, we bring not just our own experience of loss, but the experience of walking with generations of people as they go through the “valley of the shadow of death”.
We also bring the experience of helping people to think through the big questions that emerge when we start talking about death — questions about purpose, destiny, and value.
THE conversation around death and funerals will often involve telling stories of those who have shaped our lives, and voicing our feelings about their death. It can also include expressions of faith and doubt about what happens after death.
The conversation should not just be about our own wishes: it should give people confidence to go and talk to family and friends about how they would want our life to be remembered. A funeral is a time to give thanks for a life, but also a time to grieve over that loss, and to think about our hope in a future. As Christians, we have a sure and certain hope in the resurrection, and talking about death, dying, and funerals is a good place to share that hope.
Events are simple to organise: you need a room, and some tea and cake. The Gravetalk questions may provide a starting-point. Sometimes, it is helpful to have a place for reflection, a candle stand, or a prayer tree on which to hang written prayers or requests for prayer. It is useful to have information from support groups or funeral providers, and to have accurate information about the process, costs, and practicalities when someone dies.
However it happens, the important thing is to be part of the conversation. People are beginning to talk — and, as a Church, we have something to contribute. Whether it is in Dying Awareness Week, or later in the year, there is a space and a place to talk and to listen. Be confident, and do it.
Canon Sandra Millar is Head of Projects and Developments at the Archbishops’ Council. For information, visit www.churchofenglandfunerals.org.
Dying Matters Awareness Week runs from 9 to 15 May (www.dyingmatters.org).
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